Updated: Jun 18, 2020
The Problems and Possibilities of Prophecy For many people, the lynchpin in their loss of Mormon faith comes from the issues relating to prophecy and prognosticating. Whether it’s the Book of Revelation, or misplaced prophecies about the Second Coming that fail, they are completely turned off by the thought that a) the world will end or that b) Mormons continue to buy in to the Chicken Little idea of the Second Coming. They point out the numerous times people have tried to predict the Second Coming or world-ending prophecies, and that those predictions have failed time and time again. At some point, they believe, we ought to give that up and move forward with a more optimistic view of the world. There are two different issues here. The first deals with projecting a positive humanistic future, and second is related to the rational idea that people can’t see the future. We will look at these two issues independently.
First, there is the rational critique of future-gazing. History tells us that no one has ever been able to accurately predict the future with any real sense outside of some who have reported premonitions of imminent events. There are some who would point to the Biblical prophets in the Old Testament for evidence. However, Biblical scholars have textually analyzed some of these prophets and have developed theories of editing ex post facto, such as Daniel not being contemporary or Isaiah being three people. This is not without controversy, but it does call into question the ability to use those examples as evidence of people who could predict the future. Others may point to seers like Nostradamus, or astrological mystics. However, their predictions are so vague in these instances that it could apply to multiple events. In the end, a very good case can be made from past examples that evidence of future prediction is almost nonexistent or incredibly vague. Even Joseph Smith, who some say accurately predicted the Civil War and/or the success of the Utah Church, could have guessed those things and rolled the dice right on those two instances, his prophesying being more of an educated guess. He had a few other predictions that didn’t come true, or are delayed, depending on your point of view.
Does that mean that people aren’t having authentic experiences that are interpreted as prophecy? On the contrary, the fact that people have reported visions of the future is curious and the phenomenon is worthy of study; to simply dismiss these experiences simply because they didn’t come true the way they were interpreted is shortsighted. In the past several years, there have been prominent Mormons who have written books as per their experience seeing the future. These dreams and visions are fascinating, but they always miss their predictive mark. We assume these people are lying or crazy. Could there be other options?
Option A – People are having psychotic episodes. This is the schizophrenic interpretation, the Occam’s razor approach for most; it doesn’t discount the authenticity of the experience, simply that it’s materially subject to mental illness.
Option B – Or people are simply lying to elevate their own egos.
Option C – Visions can happen but are imperfect. Interpretations aren’t always accurate. Daniel in the Bible relates several of his visions but offers no interpretation on them either because he’s not allowed, or because he doesn’t understand. This would be the orthodox example and helps to flesh out the data that visions don’t appear to come true or are future events yet to happen.
Option D – Visions are a result of people tapping into pre-conceived feelings about the future but have learned to develop spiritual imagination that look and feel as real as seeing. It’s less about God and more about a technique in the mind that has been developed. This is a more Buddhist approach.
It’s helpful to flesh out the last two options, at least from the standpoint of a scientific hypothesis. Like we did with the translation aspects of the Book of Mormon, let’s also take with prophecy. Imagine a scenario where there are beings who have evolved to the point of being beyond time, perhaps living within dark energy and dark matter systems, which scientists have theorized are outside of the light and wave spectrum, and thus, perhaps outside of time, since time and light energy travel seem to correlate. Is it possible, therefore, for part of the brain to be a type of transmitter for not only ideas, but a television set of sorts that can allow someone to view the images from someone else’s brain in the past of future, or even a computer transmitter of sorts for out-of-time events? While it’s difficult to imagine how someone can travel to the past or future, no matter how fancy a DeLorean they own, the idea that people can view and communicate into the past and future may not be so hard to conceive. A more realistic idea comes from the movie, Frequency, where the protagonist could communicate with his father 25 years in the past using a radio that was bouncing a frequency from a sunspot.
There was a “hoax” that occurred about fifteen years ago where a man claiming the name of John Titor was coming into chat rooms saying that he was from the future (circa 2030s) looking for old technology to rebuild a world that had collapsed to some extent, but he was not allowed to go into great detail about the future as to protect the time line. To go back and read the bulletin board discussions with this person is amusing and thought provoking all at the same time. While improbable, it’s fascinating to consider that one could comprehend the ability to at least view or communicate through time at some point in the future. But now consider that the brain may have the same sort of capacity? Furthermore, what if you could see things in the fast or future but couldn’t contextualize it, so you had to put it into ideas only you could comprehend? Or that ideas in the past and future could only be communicated to your brain through existing knowledge but couldn’t give you new knowledge? Now Isaiah or John the Revelator make more sense when you see that their visions were analogous to contemporary places and people, not simply made-up stuff to give hope to their respective communities, but true images of the future that made no sense unless it was contextualized in a contemporary sense.
Imagine as well, that a sort of temporal prime directive exists like we imagine in Star Trek. Under this system, highly advanced beings have the capability of seeing or travelling to the past or future, maybe even communicating some aspects of it to people in other time frames but have legal and moral limits on what they can say as to protect the timeline. If that were the case, it could explain why people have had trouble predicting the future if they can communicate or see the future . . . they aren’t allowed to see too much. It’s not a function of possibility as much as it a legality or a permission.
As to whether this works or not is a fun thought experiment. Obviously, we don’t have or contain that technology today, and we can only guess about the abilities of the brain. But there is lots we don’t know about the brain, and it has shown some remarkable abilities that have so far evaded scientific reason. Perhaps therefore, we can chalk up events that are deemed as prophecy as some sort of extra-ability some people have that others don’t.
The looming issue within prophecy, however, seems to be more about the events being foretold as being too negative, too stark, too limiting, too acknowledging of an angry God. Depeche Mode penned a song, John the Revelator, critiquing that book as ungodly and shameful, precisely because of all the trouble it has created with false predictions, cultish behavior, shunning, violence, and other behaviors that they attributable to this last book in the Bible. It has a record of creating some strange denominations, engaging in war, death rituals, and simply giving false hope to people who don’t advance the cause of humanity but simply hold their hands to the sky waiting for Jesus to come. This is a valid critique, but it doesn’t mean John the Revelator is a liar. There are still valuable allegories, stories, historical angles, and cautionary tales that help to serve humanity as well. It’s possible he had a vision that came to him from God, but we have interpreted it wrongly, either by insisting on the predictions being overly literal, or trying to shoe-horn or pigeonhole the predictions into a preconceived timeframe. If we look at prophecy both allegorically, historically, while honoring the authenticity of the vision without trying to over-interpret its meaning, we may get more out of these kinds of revelations. Perhaps we may be able to develop the capacity to have our own.
The Church has added to this frustration through its own prophecy missteps, predicting the impending Second Coming of Jesus Christ from the outset. Joseph Smith thought it was going to happen within a few short years of publishing the Book of Mormon. Early D&C sections seem to affirm this belief if you read it within an overly literal context. Prophecies about the Second Coming were penned in Sections 29, 45, and 88. The establishment of Zion were a large part of these prophecies, along with the Second Coming of Jesus. By 1836, however, Joseph’s intensity over the Second Coming seems to abate some after he built the Kirtland Temple and received visions including the visitation of Jesus Christ. At this point, we see Joseph Smith taking more of a longer view on the situation.
The Church seemed to quiet any impending millennial flair after Kirtland, although other churches such as the Seventh Day Adventists and others, were swept up in William Miller’s false predictions in 1844, which culminated in the Great Disappointment. It wasn’t until 1890, when the Church was being hounded on polygamy, that the Church leaders began making predictions about Christ’s coming to stop the hand of the Federal Government from persecuting the Church. This also was drawn from Joseph Smith’s vague prophecy about living to 90 years old and seeing the face of the Lord after praying to know the date of the Lord’s coming. That year would have been 1890.
Later, in the 20th Century, statements of Ezra Taft Benson and George Albert Smith seemed to equate the Second Coming with a coinciding nuclear apocalypse and a Communist takeover of the world. Those prophecies have also come and gone, but still linger around because while the players have changed, missiles are still being pointed all over the world.
All of this points to the problem for more liberal members as orthodox Mormons insist that we are living in the latter days, and that Christ will come, and come soon. They cringe when they hear that the children born today are the greatest, they are warriors saved to battle the wicked during the end-times, saved to help establish Zion. They feel that to obsess about events that cannot be known, that have been false before, puts the emphasis of religion into a state of fear of destruction, and not upon the development of a good life, right here, right now.
Is this an appropriate way to view the world?
There are two parts to this question. One is normative. The other is contextual. The contextual question we first observe is . . . how unique is this to Mormonism or Christianity? Are there other versions of apocalypse and utopia, wherein we contextualize the flavor that appeals most to our own sensibilities? When a Mormon gives up a worldview and template of the latter days and utopia, they often switch teams, but the underlying template remains. Gone are the impending disasters of God’s judgement and wrath, and instead there is the doom of Climate Change, a regressive leader, or Artificial Intelligence. Instead of a triumphant religious Zion there is human progress with social justice that learns to live with one another without any war, where all are equal without respect to gender, sex, race, sexuality, or religious or political belief. And we visit planets like in Star Trek.
The answer to the contextual question is that we all look at the world through a lens of struggle and triumph. That’s why we have movies that offer us this every day. It’s easy to recognize and denigrate the struggle myths of those we don’t understand or like, but then we don’t notice we have our own struggle myths that may be just as fantastical. Of course, as time has gone forward, some have postulated that we can remove the struggle from the triumph. That’s a major theme of much of modern progressivism.
Progressivism – All is Well in Zion
In the context of this idea of God creating utopia, progressivism is the belief that man will solve all the world’s problems in a way that mitigates struggle through large, but hopefully gentle institutional coercion. The need for God or a greater moral context will be outgrown and science or scientism will replace the moral rubric of religion.
Progressivism can be “liberal”, and it can be “conservative.” It is leveraged most easily by state actors who visualize the future in terms of human progress. Whereas the problem of the need for an authority system can shift from prophets and priests to professors under scientism, it can likewise shift to politicians and public systems under progressivism. Trust turns to the state or the economy. For the liberal, the system of choice for progress is the state, a technocratic/democratic system that advances the cause of humanity into the future. For the conservative, the progressive forces are also the state, trusting in a system of law and order and military might to protect the interests of the business classes to freely conduct their craft without their properties being subject to theft, the idea being that the free market will cause mankind to progress as it has in the past. When more power is advanced, this is progressive under this context. When more freedom and less power is advanced, it is less progressive, or classically liberal. Progressivism can subsume religion. Many Protestant religions are part of the progressive system, believing that strong powerful human systems will bring about “God’s” progress. This has it’s roots in theChristian amillennialism promoted first by Saint Augustine. After a while, it was picked up and secularized by the fathers of the Enlightenment and militarized by the utopians of the 19th and 20th century. Now it’s in a careful see-saw of post-modernism married to idealized social justice values combined with neo-liberal globalization of markets aligned with post-socialist public/private partnerships. Utopian progress remains a goal.
It’s easy to see how when many people quit one side of the Mormon binary, they often retain the need for a strong systematic authority and transfer it to the state. They stop viewing prophets as being benevolent and trusted and understanding of right and wrong and switch that view to progressive power brokers who have another vision of human betterment and work to advance it through democratic or technocratic means. It’s not uncommon to have this switch take place observing the tension on the human condition with respect to social justice for individuals. In this manner, some humans are seen as being repressed by other humans and in need of social justice liberation. The repressors are the “devil” or “satan” that need to be vanquished. The best and highest good, therefore, is to advance equality and slash repression. If democratic setbacks to occur, a strong benevolent government should be able to step in and provide for food, shelter, benefits, etc. to help the marginalized through the crisis, often through legal recourse. Often this also involves muting the marginalizers as “haters” deserving rights restrictions, increasingly in the name of public health.
The problem with this switch is that we think we have found something new. While it may be new to our understanding, the idea of mankind creating a utopia without God is as old as the story of the Tower of Babel, allegorical as it is alleged. It wants to shortcut processes, to smooth out the struggle, to mitigate the iterations of human setbacks, to remove it altogether. It desires the joy without the pain, the happiness without the misery. Indeed, the 20th Century has been a hallmark for removing the worst of the pain of humanity in the advancement of science and technology in some areas. There are two issues with progressivism in this way. One has to do with how realistic it is to expect that we can overcome all struggle. The 20th Century was the most nightmarish century on record with atomic wars, chemical weapons, and efficient genocide, and many of its purveyors were waging war as a way to end suffering to all of mankind! Sometimes the battle to overcome suffering creates more suffering, or greater suffering, the means justifying the ends.
Then there is the valuation of “struggle. Isn’t there something noble or virtuous in the need to overcome challenges at great odds? What is lost when we gain something easily or without fanfare? While we may all wish to eliminate struggle, there is a nobility to it and some struggle is always good for the human psyche. It also helps us to repent. There may come a time when struggle can cease to exist, but creating utopia, secular or religious, will take fantastical struggle in ways we can hardly imagine. Right now, many in the West wish to inoculate struggle that when they sense micro-aggressions by a difficult verbal encounter, they seek to limit speech of others as “hate.” It’s not that their pain isn’t real, but it hasn’t been inoculated very well because of soft living. Thus, when some people are challenged even mildly, these days they often contemplate suicide as the best way out because they can’t imagine either living with the struggle of a challenge, or being able to overcome that struggle.
The final problem of progressivism is in determining the measurement of progress. Have the gains been for the better? We may live longer, but are we living happier? Is our progression an illusion? Some people, even some progressives, will reluctantly conclude that it’s been a mixed bag. That’s one reason why deconstruction has been all the rage going on over a century as a reaction to early progressivism. Perhaps there is a realization that we’ve progressed but progressed in the wrong direction. If one was to measure progressivism today, it is a mixed system that rejects classic progressivism (based on improving class inequality by improving technology and democracy) with deconstruction of that ideal being advanced through art, movies, and pop culture tribalism. They focus on national identify, race, sexual expression, and gender as the next iteration of progressivism believing that when social justice among marginalized tribes is achieved that progress will be achieved. Will this new iteration be more successful than its predecessor or is it simply another iteration of illusion?
Millennialism – Fear, Hope, and Reality
We ought to hope for a better future. It’s part of being human, and whether we recognize that hope through miraculous divine intervention or through the genius of man, it feels right to have hope. But what kind of hope is the best kind? We must define what we wish to see in a better world. Is it simply equality between the races, genders, and classes, or is it much more? One would surmise that these things would be outcomes under a race of people that had their hearts knit towards one another, with love as the driving factor in their interactive motivation. Mormonism took this very seriously in the early years, and it’s one of its geniuses that keep the realistic side of the faith story compelling, despite the huckster tales of magic and fraud that are often told today as an exposé. A truly fraudulent enterprise would have looked more like a pyramid scheme with the captain at the top collecting all the money in the name of all the good a church can do. One finds very little evidence of that in the formative years. There appears to have been a sincere desire to develop a radical social experiment to cure poverty in the Missouri and Kirtland eras. Of course, as time has marched on, that original vision looks now more like Microsoft than Zion. That has not helped the image of the Church. During those formative days, even up through the time of Wilford Woodruff, there were successful communities of people that had eliminated poverty and avarice amongst themselves. Those final communities only disbanded as part of the bargain of statehood, not necessarily because of any breakdowns from within. That Mormonism could produce over a half a century of poverty elimination in many of its quarters is monumental. We ought to take more time to study what made some of these communities thrive and what pitfalls we ought to avoid that doomed most of the others.
The early Zion was plagued by three problems, 1) not enough people of means willing to sacrifice for the community, 2) too many poor such that it was overwhelming, and 3) stewards who took advantage and profited from their positions of authority. The fourth problem that tipped the scale was pride, a feeling that somehow the Saints were better than their neighbors. That created the animosity from the Independence Missouri citizens that supported the first order that drove the Mormons from Jackson County. People’s hearts were not changed. They had not truly converted to their faith even as they converted to their religion. This doomed the early attempts. And to place it in a wider context, other communitarian religious groups, such as the Shakers, were also doomed by the same problems. The attempt to live the economic law of the New Testament was a complicated endeavor, it seems. Joseph Smith may have never known Robert Owen, but he was a contemporary advocate of what can now be seen as proto-socialism or a voluntary socialism based on religious ideals. Unfortunately, the hearts of men being what they are, others soon came along and advocated a more forceful vision, which eventually ended up being called State Socialism. With State Socialism we have seen a century of a race to the bottom in terms of human dignity trying to implement a vision of equality. Strong men and oligarchs always seem to step into the breach as part of the advocated process who are loath to give up power. In the end, you end up trading one autocrat for another, trading the Divine right of Kings, for the Divine Right of Capital, to the Divine Right of the Dictator of the Proletariat, to the unelected bureaucracies of the global Deep State, as authorities lead and terrorize the masses. The poor remain poor.
It seems that the problem with equality working resides in the human heart. Until we can knit our hearts to one another in love, we will not be able to obtain the hope of an equal society. The question is, how can we do this? One popular commentator of today, Jordan Peterson, advocates that we start with ourselves, that we “clean our own rooms.” Too many who agitate for change in the world are a mess inside themselves. We need to repent and learn to have love for others in our hearts. The gospel of Jesus Christ offers each of us a way to turn our lives around and become better, more loving people. Then may we change our world one person at a time, one family, one neighborhood, one city, and one nation.
Others wish to eject themselves from the world, and isolate themselves, perhaps with a few people, in order to experiment. Of course, that comes with other problems that make it difficult to implement. People in isolation often look for an authority, and we know where that most often leads. And if a voluntary community has people who have not knit their hearts together, and they have no strong leader, all it takes is one catfight and someone leaves. Then others leave. Experiment . . . over.
No, the solution to the problem is to learn how to love one another. Simple, yet so difficult. But if we are to place our hopes anywhere, it ought to be in the brotherly love of mankind, and all our social efforts, religious or secular, ought to be placed on that singular question? How can we develop love for one another? Despite deep differences? Entire books could be written about this, but the question and the answer are clear.
Fear, on the other hand, impedes our hopes. We fear that the human heart is too hard. We fear the risks of taking a stand, or forming communities of love, even within existing neighborhoods. Sometimes we are told the world is a terrible place and God is going to come and burn it all up. While there is some scriptural support to this taking place, and while there is uncertainty for how much of this is abstract or allegorical or merely a recognition by God of how men treat men, fear is often used to motivate people to behave. They are told of hell and they fear hellfire. They fear being “Left Behind” so they “get saved,” being raptured to avoid all of the unpleasantness that surrounds the end of the world. In the secular world, they fear climate change, or AI, or the very unlikely Handmaid’s Tale. Fear causes people to do drastic things in order to avoid unpleasant scenarios that are probably not all that likely to happen. We break up families and communities over fear. We try to restrict speech. We vote to take away freedoms out of fear and the feeling that we need more power and security to protect us. Sometimes because of fear, we leave our communities of faith, or our families, to go out and hunker down to wait for the end, or we isolate ourselves from those we see as backwards and take refuge in more forward-thinking communities, even if only through social media accounts. Time and again, we see the folly of these sorts of efforts. Many people won’t take career or professional risks that will take them away from the safety of the Saints. Or they feel that the large cities will be nuked or become zombie worlds after an economic collapse. These people become paralyzed and have a hard time making good choices because they don’t want to risk unpleasant outcomes, many of those outcomes being unrealistic, un-probable, or simply not true. People don’t like being confronted with ideas that scare them, even if those ideas would help you take your vegetables. Finally, there the fear of death. People are afraid of the pain and of the unknown of what happens on the other side. They seek stories, myths, and familiarity that protect them from this unpleasant fear that we all must endure to one extent or another. In the end, we all face the terror of starting into the abyss, whether it’s looking at a mushroom cloud or a global warming catastrophe or through the fog of cancer; it’s all the same. We all die.
The gospel as applied, solves this problem. People who can connect with God take their security and safety from those connecting experiences. They develop a sense of peace that comes from inside and not from outside circumstances. They take frightening experiences and pay it forward with love towards others as a way to heal and salve the wounds from the pains of life. People who live their lives free of fear are more likely to feel led to do things outside of their comfort zones. And that includes making sacrifices to help other people, to give away excess income for tithing and charity, to share their homes and lives with those less fortunate. And if not with a Christian or Mormon gospel, perhaps a Buddhist or secular one. If you can develop love for others and the desire to connect with something higher than yourself, it doesn’t necessarily matter which vehicle you use to get there. It’s possible at some point, the differences will converge.
Once you can learn to deal with fear of the unknown, you can both deal with the unknown, accept the reality of the idea that the rain falls on the both the just and the unjust, and stare into the abyss with more resolve. Many people like to believe in the goodness of humanity, that we can accomplish anything and solve any problem, with minimal cost. Some of this belief is a wish to eliminate the challenges that come along with life. It’s unrealistic. Likewise, there are some people who wish to hide out in Montana with a 10-year supply of food, waiting for the world to come crashing down around them, when that’s also not realistic. So, what is realistic?
In looking at trends, we have major corrections in the world economy and political power about every seventy years. The last was the Great Depression and World War II. Before that was the Civil War, and before that was the Revolutionary War. Does that mean that something bad must automatically happen? Especially since we are now overdue? No, it does not, but the likelihood is there. It would be foolhardy to expect that home values will always rise, that jobs will never be lost, that invasive government policies won’t backfire, or that democratic governments can’t fall. It would be better to expect that these will continue to happen in our world, sometimes devastatingly so, and it could be in our own backyard. Would it be wise to be somewhat prepared for these events? Yes . . . especially being mentally prepared to make wise choices when these things come upon us.
To double down, humanity has undergone major corrections once an eon. The last major catastrophic event was the Black Death in the mid-14th century which killed around 50% of Europe’s population. To those people, this was Armageddon, the end of the World. Yet out of the ashes of that world, the Reformation and Enlightenment began to flower. After terrible catastrophes often come some of the best that humanity has had to offer. To expect that we will never have an “end of the world” catastrophe is naïve. Expecting it to come tomorrow is foolhardy. Having a good game plan, both spiritually and temporally, for both short-term and long-term catastrophes is wise, even if it’s as simple as learning how to die in peace when your world is burning around you.
And if you do survive, you make it a better world.
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